Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Premonitions of Darwin

TM Lutas at Chicago Boyz says that one of Shakespeare’s sonnets “touched his heart“:

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery so gazed on now,
Will be a totter’d weed of small worth held:
Then being asked, where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days;
To say, within thine own deep sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame, and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserv’d thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.

Shakespeare was incredible.  Somehow, almost 300 years before Darwin, he grasped that there was something ageless and potentially immortal in human beings, and that it, and not our conscious, mortal selves is what is essential about us.  My favorite sonnet is #13:

O! that you were your self; but, love, you are
No longer yours, than you your self here live:
Against this coming end you should prepare,
And your sweet semblance to some other give:
So should that beauty which you hold in lease
Find no determination; then you were
Yourself again, after yourself’s decease,
When your sweet issue your sweet form should bear.
Who lets so fair a house fall to decay,
Which husbandry in honour might uphold,
Against the stormy gusts of winter’s day
And barren rage of death’s eternal cold?
O! none but unthrifts. Dear my love, you know,
You had a father: let your son say so.

“Love, you are no longer yours, than you your self here live?”  “Then you were yourself again, after yourself’s decease?”  Incredible!!  The man was pure magic.

It’s interesting that Tolstoy had a terrible aversion to Shakespeare.  Orwell refuted him in an essay that you can find in the fourth volume of his published collected works, “In Front of Your Nose,” which I highly recommend, as well as the other three volumes.  You can probably pick it up at Amazon or on eBay. I think Tolstoy’s visceral hatred of Shakespeare resulted from the fact that he was a pathologically pious Puritan, and he recognized in Shakespeare his polar opposite.  As Shakespeare put it in Midsummer Night’s Dream, he would prefer any species of human being to “a devil of a Puritan!”

Yevgeny Zamyatin and “We”

To give you an idea of how up to speed I am on science fiction, I had never heard of We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, or at least not until I ran across an old review of the book among George Orwell’s essays.  In the review, which appeared in early 1946, he writes,

Several years after hearing of its existence, I have a last got my hands on a copy of Zamyatin’s We, which is one of the literary curiosities of this book-burning age… So far as I can judge it is not a book of the first order, but it is certainly an unusual one, and it is astonishing that no English publisher has been enterprising enough to reissue it.

The book was obviously rare and difficult to find at the time Orwell wrote.  Here’s how he describes the plot:

In the twenty-sixth century… the inhabitants of Utopia have so completely lost their individuality as to be known only by numbers.  They live in glass houses (this was written before television was invented), which enables the political police, known as the “Guardians”, to supervise them more easily.  They all wear identical uniforms, and a human being is commonly referred to either as “a number” or “a unif” (uniform)… The Single State is ruled over by a personage known as The Benefactor, who is annually re-elected by the entire population, the vote being always unanimous.

Orwell was sure the book had inspired Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, although Huxley denied it.  Be that as it may, it certainly inspired Orwell’s own 1984.  For example, the glass houses (telescreens), Guardians (though police), and Benefactor (Big Brother) are all there, and there are many similarities in the plot, including the ending.  That’s not to imply that 1984 wasn’t original.  Far from it.  The central theme of 1984 was the nature of totalitarianism, and what Orwell believed was a very credible totalitarian future, not in centuries, but in a few decades.  In We, on the other hand, as Orwell put it,

There is no power hunger, no sadism, no hardness of any kind.  Those at the top have no strong motive for staying at the top, and though everyone is happy in a vacuous way, life has become so pointless that it is difficult to believe that such a society could endure.

I would also agree with Orwell that We isn’t first rate as a novel, although it may just be because I’m put off by the abrupt, expressionist style.

Still, there are an astounding number of themes in the book that have appeared and continue to appear in later works of science fiction to this day.  For example, the loss of individuality in future dystopia’s,

You see, even in our thoughts.  No one is ever ‘one,’ but always ‘one of.’  We are so identical…

to be original means to somehow stand out from others.  Consequently, being original is to violate equality.

The Christians of the ancient world (our only predecessors, as imperfect as they were) also understood this:  humility is a virtue and pride is a vice, “WE” is divine, and “I” is satanic… Isn’t it clear that individual consciousness is just sickness?

The totalitarian ruler and his enforcers,

And to expel the offending cog, we have the skillful, severe hand of the Benefactor and we have the experienced eye of the Guardians…

They (the ancients) however, worshipped their absurd, unknown God whereas we worship a non-absurd one – one with a very precise visual appearance.

…and so on. And what became of this prescient but scarce book? As science fiction aficionados are surely aware, it is scarce no longer. It has been reprinted many times since Orwell’s time, and I had a much easier time acquiring a copy than he. I was intrigued to find that Zamyatin was an old Bolshevik. Obviously, after the Russian Revolution, he quickly discovered he was a “cog” who didn’t quite fit. We had the honor of becoming the first book banned by the Soviet censorship board in 1921. According to Wiki,

In 1931, Zamyatin appealed directly to Joseph Stalin, requesting permission to leave the Soviet Union. In his letter, Zamyatin wrote, “True literature can only exist when it is created, not by diligent and reliable officials, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and skeptics”. With the encouragement of Maxim Gorky, Stalin decided to grant Zamyatin’s request.

By this time, Zamyatin had managed to smuggle We out of the Soviet Union and have it published abroad.  He was very lucky, after having pushed his luck so far, to escape the clutches of the worst mass murderer the world has ever known.  Fortunately, Gorky was still around to help him.  That great man, although a convinced socialist himself, probably saved hundreds from the executioner with similar appeals.  Zamyatin died in poverty in Paris in 1937.

Yevgeny Zamyatin

“Stoner” by John Williams

John Edward Williams
You might want to have a look at the novel Stoner by John Williams.  It’s the real article.  It’s not really a well known work.  I found it somehow by clicking around on Amazon.  Someone had written an interesting review, and aroused my curiosity.  A lot of great literature is preserved that way.  Someone reads it, understands, and spreads the word.  Investigate a little and you’ll find that’s been happening with Stoner since it appeared in 1965.  A recent (2007) example is Morris Dickfield’s review in the New York Times.

What’s great about Stoner?  The same thing that’s great about any great novel.  It gives you an intimate glimpse into the mind of another human being, telling you what they experienced, and how they reacted to it.  In the process, you always recognize yourself; your own thoughts and feelings.

Works like this are written with a simple clarity that’s often missing from the works of philosophy and psychology with which they have much in common.  There’s nothing obscure about them, because the author is unconcerned about impressing you with how smart he is.  Rather, he has an intense desire to make you understand.  Stoner is not only clear, but beautiful.  Many passages in the book read like poetry. 

Look and spread the word.

H. L. Mencken’s Prejudices

The Sage of Baltimore has been honored with a new edition of the complete set of his “Prejudices.” The best review I’ve found so far is by Damon Root at Reason. He must have looked beyond the pages of Prejudices, because he knows of Mencken the editor as well as Mencken the writer. It was in that role, primarily for his “American Mercury,” that he did the country a service he is little honored or remembered for today. As Root puts it,

Similarly, at a time when most leading Progressives (including Wilson) supported racial segregation and turned a blind eye to the horrors of the Jim Crow South, Mencken attacked the lawlessness of “Klu Kluxry” and routinely praised (and published) the work of black writers, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Walter White, and George Schuyler. Indeed, White later said that Mencken pushed him to write his first novel, The Fire in the Flint, and then helped him secure a publisher. Zora Neale Hurston was a major Mencken fan. And according to the Harlem Renaissance giant James Weldon Johnson, “Mencken had made a sharper impression on my mind than any other American then writing.”

Indeed, Mencken did more for social justice at that crucial time than any of his contemporaries, not because he pitied African Americans or because he loved to imagine himself as their noble savior, but because he admired the work of black writers and considered it worthy of being published. He gave them a much greater gift than condescending patronage. He gave them respect. The Mercury set the tone for many of the intellectuals of the day, and they, too, learned to recognize and respect the talent Mencken set before them. As Root points out, he hated the Klan and everything it stood for, and fought it with scorn and ridicule in every issue of his journal. In spite of all this, he has actually been called a “racist” because he spoke of blacks as he spoke of everyone else in his world, without the fine sense of political correctness expected of writers in the 21st century. No good deed goes unpunished.

R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is not so complimentary as Root in the review he wrote for the Wall Street Journal.  For example,

But the vast majority of the pieces in “Prejudices” are tedious and ephemeral, even terrible at times.

Anyone seeking the reasons for Mencken’s high reputation would do better by turning to Huntington Cairns’s “The American Scene” (1965), an anthology that judiciously selects from Mencken’s autobiographical works, his writings on the American language and his various superb efforts at reportage, including his famous account of the 1925 Scopes Trail, in which fundamentalist religion famously butted heads with evolutionary theory.

There are no dates included in the Library of America volumes and no contextual introductions to the pieces offered. Much of the time we have no idea what Mencken is shouting about. He comes off as a gasbag.

Mencken continued such rewrites and regurgitations for an additional four “Prejudices.” He is at his worst when he writes on what he considers important topics: the South, farmers, the national letters, the American character.

I understand what Tyrrell is talking about.  Mencken was scornful of his enemies, and he wrote about them in a style that was repetitive to the point that it could become tiresome.  Perhaps he does come off as a gasbag in some of the worst of the Prejudices.  However, if you’re interested in learning something about the human condition, the Prejudices are not ephemeral, nor is it difficult to gather what he is shouting about if you take the time to learn a little of the history of the time.  I suspect the reviewer’s blanket judgment that the sage is “at his worst” when writing about the South, farmers, the national letters, the American character,” is more a reflection of his own opinions than of Mencken.  He occasionally had strong praise for southerners and southern letters, and as far as the national letters are concerned, I owe the discovery of several authors I greatly admire to his reviews.  He had a fine eye for literary talent, and put it to good use in the Mercury.  His first encounter with Sinclair Lewis is a case in point.  He was put off by Lewis typical antics, wonderfully described in Thomas Wolfe’s “Of Time and the River.”  However, when he got around to reading Lewis’ work, it didn’t matter.  He knew he had found a first rate talent.  He did not dislike farmers because they farmed, but because they were the source of political power for his bete noires such as William Jennings Bryan and “dry boss” Wayne B. Wheeler.  Tyrrell comes closer to the truth when he writes,

He flourished in the first quarter of the century, but I doubt there would be room in America for him now. His prose style aside, he was an independent mind. There are only two camps today, and he would be in neither.

That’s exactly what I admire about him, and why it’s well worth the effort to read his Prejudices, in spite of their blemishes.  There have never been many like him in any age, and in our own, they are almost non-existent.  Most of the stuff one reads today is so predictable, so orthodox in its conformity to some ideological dogma, so processed like the food we eat, so often regurgitated in blogs and the “news,” that one despairs of finding anything original enough to be worth thinking about.  Mencken is constantly holding little baubles of insights in front of your nose, turning them this way and that, shoving your imagination out of familiar ruts, even if they are sometimes in the rough, just as he dug them up.

Katherine Powers wrote another review for Barnes and Noble.  She bowdlerizes Mencken as an original “east coast intellectual:”

H. L. Mencken’s Prejudices is an extended Bronx cheer from the smarty-boots side of the culture war and the first full-bore expression of the animus of East coast intellectuals toward the South and fly-over country.

If you prefer feeding your confirmation bias about east coast intellectuals over according Mencken the respect he deserves as an individual, you will certainly find many tidbits that will serve the purpose before reaching the end of Prejudices.   However, the main problem with this pigeon-hole version of Mencken is that it isn’t true.  Anyone who takes the time to read his work will notice that he found a great deal to admire and respect in “the South and fly-over country.”  The rest of Powers’ review is more of the same wooden caricature.  For example,

In “The Cult of Hope” (Second Series) he calls the idea that criticism should be constructive a “messianic delusion”; on the contrary, its object is destruction.

If Powers’ object here is to give the reader an example of one of Mencken’s bombastic phrases, well and good.  If, on the other hand, she sets any value on informing her readers who and what Mencken was as a critic, its a complete distortion.  Mencken had a fine eye for separating the wheat from the chaff, and while he may not have been charitable to the chaff, he often had enthusiastic (and constructive) praise for authors he liked, many times before their reputation had already been established elsewhere.  Other than that, Powers can’t resist the urge to draw our attention to the fact that her personal piety meets the most up-to-date standards by means of the politically correct peck-sniffery familiar to modern readers.  This sort of thing may be forgivable as an inherited weakness in her case, as we learn that her “great-grandfather was an ardent supporter of William Jennings Bryan.”

It’s hard to capture a writer as original and thought-provoking as Mencken by trying to mount him on a pin in a review limited to a couple of webpages.  The most you can hope to do is pique the readers interest enough to get them to look for themselves.  Mencken is worth the effort.

“On Deception Watch” – The “Conspiracy” to Kill Fusion

In wandering here and there on the Internet I ran across mention of a new novel by David H. Spielberg entitled “On Deception Watch.” According to the Amazon blurb about it,

This is an epic drama about unlimited energy, the realignment of international power in a truly new world order unlike anything envisioned before, and deadly conflict between political and military centers of power. Controlled fusion energy ignites a firestorm of competing interests from within the top levels of government to the “oil patch” to the United Nations and ultimately to the world. How is it that a visionary physicist/entrepreneur was able to achieve the technological breakthrough of the century?

The author himself adds some detail to the picture;

I wrote a novel, “On Deception Watch,” that was triggered by my visit to KMS Fusion,” a real company that in 1975 really accomplished laser fusion ignition of a deuterium/tritium target and was then harassed to death by the federal government and its assets essentially looted by the feds. My novel is about the premise of a company that does what KMS Fusion did and then what. Check out KMS Fusion, Keeve Siegel, the president of the company, and my novel. One exploration in it is about what replaces the United Nations. The story takes place about 25 years in the future.

W-e-e-e-l-l-l. It wasn’t quite like that, and I doubt the author believes it himself.  According to Xlibris, he has a Ph.D. in physics and, if so, I’m sure he doesn’t really believe KMS accomplished ignition back in 1975.  Still, the above account isn’t going to mislead anyone whose tastes don’t already run to yarns about the Da Vinci Code, the Celestine Prophecy, and the Maya calendar, because the original papers about what happened then are still available, and many of the people who did the experiments are still around.  We’ll cut Spielberg some slack and call it “poetic license,” forgivable from an author who’s just published his first novel.  Regardless, the story of KMS is certainly fascinating even without such embellishments.

In fact, there was a guy named Keeve (or “Kip” as he was better known) Siegel, his initials were KMS, and he was a brilliant entrepreneur who, back in the 60’s, became convinced that inertial confinement fusion (ICF) was within reach using the laser technology then available.  Gathering a crew of talented scientists, he founded KMS Fusion and built the “Chroma” laser in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and, without government funding, actually succeeded (in 1974, not 1975) in demonstrating fusion from a laser-driven implosion in the laboratory for the first time, beating embarrassed teams at Los Alamos and Livermore National Laboratories to the punch.  It was a remarkable achievement, but was still orders of magnitude away from “ignition,” usually defined as equivalent to “scientific breakeven,” which occurs when the energy released from fusion equals the energy carried by the laser beams driving the reaction.  Siegel, a very heavy man, died dramatically less than a year later, suffering a stroke while appealing for government funding before the Joint Congressional Committee on nuclear power.  According to the Wikipedia article about him linked above,

At this time, KMS Fusion was indisputably the most advanced laser-fusion laboratory in the world. Unfortunately, outright harassment from the AEC only increased after the announcement of these results. According to one source in the faculty of the University of Michigan, the campaign against KMS Fusion culminated with a massive incursion into the KMS Fusion facilities by federal agents, who effectively put an end to its operations by confiscating essential materials on the grounds that, inter alia, all information concerning the production of nuclear energy is classified information which belongs exclusively to the federal government.

As usual, caution is due in taking Wiki at face value, and this account is pure mythology.  The AEC was abolished in 1974, so was in no position to “harass” KMS.  If the government continued to “harass” KMS after that, it chose an odd way of doing it, because KMS actually succeeded in securing a multi-million dollar government contract to continue its research after Siegel’s death.  This was renewed several times, and KMS became a major player in the government ICF program, eventually becoming the lead laboratory for target development and production.  The company eventually ran afoul of its sponsors at the Department of Energy in the early 90’s for reasons that had nothing to do with suppressing its research results, and lost its government contract to General Atomics, which continues as the “lead lab” for inertial fusion targets to this day.  KMS continued a shadow existence for many years, but that effectively ended its role as a player in ICF.

That said, it’s quite true that there was friction between KMS and the inertial fusion guys at the national laboratories, just as there has always been friction between the national laboratories themselves.  The teams at Los Alamos, Livermore, and Sandia all coveted the research dollars that were going to KMS, whose management didn’t endear itself by a bad habit of lobbying for earmarks over and above the funding DOE wanted it to have with the aid of Michigan representatives in Congress.  The lab guys all seemed to believe that this money came out of their hide.  They argued that the Chroma laser in Ann Arbor was obsolete, and that KMS should end experiments there and concentrate on target fabrication.  Well, after KMS’ collapse, Chroma was cannibalized, the lion’s share of its optical innards going to Los Alamos.  There, after being rechristened “Trident,” this “obsolete” laser continues in operation to this day!

As for ignition, it turned out that the slogan of “online by ’79” was a tad optimistic.  Mother Nature had other ideas.  The computer power available when KMS was founded was very limited, and the computer programs that had predicted the possibility of ignition with relatively small lasers like Chroma were limited to looking at the problem in one dimension.  It turns out that multi-dimensional effects, such as the Rayleigh-Taylor instability, make ignition much harder to achieve than the first generation of computer codes predicted.  It’s probably a good thing, too, because otherwise we may have succeeded in blowing ourselves up by now with pure fusion weapons.  In any case, we kept building bigger laser facilities, eventually culminating in the recent completion of the National Ignition Facility at Livermore, a massive, 192 beam system capable of delivering a nominal 1.8 megajoules of blue (frequency-tripled) light.  As its name implies, its goal is to achieve ignition, and the critical experiments designed to achieve that goal will take place in the next couple of years.  I am not optimistic that they will succeed, but am keeping my fingers crossed that they do.

Meanwhile, I wish Dr. Spielberg every success with his novel.  It sounds like a great yarn, and should bring a smile to the faces of ICF old timers.

Noah and Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh was first written down by an unknown Babylonian scribe around 2000 B.C.  It relates the heroic adventures of the semi-legendary ruler of the Sumerian city-state of Uruk about 2700 B.C.  At one point, Gilgamesh seeks out an ancient sage by the name of Utnapishtim in order to discover how to avoid death.  It happens that the gods awarded immortality to Utnapishtim after he survived a great flood that wiped out all the rest of humanity by building a large boat at the behest of the god Ea.  In the manner of Noah, he collected his family and all manner of living things and took them along for the ride.  As the waters subside, his boat comes to rest on top of a mountain.  Quoting from the epic,

On Mount Nisis the ship stood still,
Mount Nisis held the ship so that it could not move,
One day, two days, Mount Nisis held the ship fast…
When the seventh day arrived,
I sent forth a dove, letting it free.
The dove went hither and thither;
Not finding a resting place, it came back.
I sent forth a swallow, letting it free.
The swallow went hither and thither.
Not finding a resting place, it came back.
I sent forth a raven, letting it free.
The raven went and saw the decrease of the waters.
It ate, croaked, but did not turn back.

Sound familiar?  And yet people still stumble around on Mt. Ararat looking for the remains of Noah’s ark. Every few decades or so, they even find them, although they do tend to move around a bit.  Go figure.

Minnesota in 1854: An Account by a Remarkable Englishman

The easy availability of a vast library of books is not the least of the Internet’s many gifts. If you find a reference to some interesting volume published before 1922, you are more than likely to find it among the online collection at Google books. Recently, for example, I happened to see a reference to an account of the Earl of Elgin’s mission to China and Japan in the years 1857-59 by one Laurence Oliphant. It was mentioned in one of the great British literary reviews of the 19th century, and described in such favorable terms as to pique my interest. In searching the author’s name at Google Books, I found not only the work in question, but any number of others attributed to the same author, including descriptions of travel in the southern regions of Russia, describing conditions there in 1852, just before the onset of the Crimean War, Palestine, and of no small interest to myself, as I grew up in Wisconsin, an account of an expedition through Canada to our neighbor state of Minnesota by way of Lake Superior in 1854.

I was pleased to find the book as entertaining and skillfully written as the earlier work about the Far East described in the British review, and highly recommend it to the attention of the interested reader. There are many insightful comments about social, economic, and political conditions in the U.S. at the time. Midwesterners will enjoy the many details and anecdotes about the rough and ready life in Wisconsin and Minnesota at a time when the region was still considered the “far west.”

For example, when Oliphant and his three companions climbed off their steamer at Superior, Wisconsin, they discovered that the only hotel in town was a large barn, which doubled as a carpenter shop and land office. Guests were expected to bring their own shavings to sleep on, should they be lucky enough to find an unoccupied spot. The author gives an interesting account of an expedition with a local realtor to have a look at some promising building lots in the growing metropolis:

…we commenced cutting our way with billhooks through the dense forest, which he called Third Avenue, or the fashionable quarter, until we got to the bed of a rivulet, down which we turned through tangled underwood (by name West Street), until it lost itself in a bog, which was the principal square, upon the other side of which, covered with almost impenetrable bush, was the site of our lots.

Oliphant goes on to describe a harrowing journey with two Canadian voyageurs in a birch bark canoe through swamps and over rapids to the headwaters of the Mississippi, from which they descended to St. Paul, the up and coming capital of the Minnesota territory. They were pleased to find it a great deal more civilized than Superior, with a hotel that was passable, even by European standards. Oliphant recounts that the guests would rush through their evening meal in typical American fashion. The process of digestion, however, was another matter. The men would retire to the front porch, where they would lean back in chairs, criticize the passers-by, and pontificate on the politics of the day at their leisure.

Among the topics of conversation was the issue of slavery, and while latter day Marxists and sentimental writers about “southern heritage” have “proved” that the Civil War was not really about slavery using any number of facile and unconvincing arguments, there was no confusion about the matter at the time, whether among opponents or proponents of slavery or European observers. Oliphant described an exchange on the subject between an eastern Yankee and a scowling Texan, and observed,

Whatever may be the views of Americans upon the great question of slavery, which seems destined, before long, to split the Union, they do not scruple to avow themselves annexationists.

The great question of slavery will lead to an explosion which it is to be hoped will not terminate in a Kilkenny-cat process.

The author and his friends took a river steamboat to Galena, Illinois, a point which was already connected to the rest of the country by rail. Apropos railroads, he notes in passing,

…we have no business to question the engineering performances in a country in which there are already 21,310 miles of railway laid down, or about 2500 miles more than the whole of the rest of the world put together.

The story of Oliphant doesn’t end with travel stories. Strangely enough, this obviously intelligent and articulate writer later went completely off the deep end as an adherent of the then-fashionable “spiritualist” craze. Among the collection of his works available at Google Books, one will also find a remarkable production entitled, “Scientific Religion, or Higher Possibilities of Life and Practice through the Operation of Natural Forces.” Published in 1888, it is full of revelations about “dynaspheric forces, the vital atomic interactions between the living and the dead, the transmutation of material forces by conversion of moral particles, Magnetic Conditions in the Holy Land,” and any number of similar ravings, all of which have so far failed in their author’s evident intent of enlightening future generations.

Those who pique themselves on the supposedly high intelligence of humankind would do well to read such stuff occasionally. Oliphant was a man of no mean intellect, possessed of remarkable insight and powers of analysis in his description of life in the United States of his time, and the political affairs then current. He also published ravings about “spiritual forces” that even a child would laugh at today. Those who consider themselves infallible would do well to recall that they belong to the same species (starting, of course, with me).

Steamboats docked at St. Paul, 1858

Stendhal on Romanticism and Classicism

In his little book, Racine and Shakespeare, Stendhal defined romanticism and classicism as follows:

Romanticism is the art of presenting to different peoples those literary works which, in the existing state of their habits and beliefs, are capable of giving them the greatest possible pleasure.

Classicism, on the contrary, presents to them that literature which gave the greatest pleasure to their great-grandfathers.

To which Victor Hugo replied,

…he is profoundly unaware of what the classical genre is or what the romantic genre is.

Perhaps. Stendhal’s definitions aren’t like anything I’ve ever heard in an English class. On the other hand, they’re as clear and understandable now as they were when he wrote them down nearly 200 years ago. I suspect they’re also a great deal more useful for actually communicating an idea than anything Hugo might have come up with. For example, as Stendhal put it,

It requires courage to be a romantic (his definition), because one must take a chance. The prudent classicist, on the contrary, never takes a step without being supported secretly, by a line from Homer or by a philosophical comment made by Cicero in his treatise De Senectate.

If you look at what passes for “culture” in Europe in our time, it’s obvious that not many artists are taking chances. They’re mostly content with repackaging the work that pleased their great-grandfathers.


H. L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, and the “Progressives”

Given the number of links Instapundit posts every day, it should come as no surprise if he hits an occasional sour note. A recent specimen thereof turned up an article that convinced me that Prof. Reynolds made a good choice when he favored law over American literature in his choice of academic careers.

The article in question gathers up a batch of famous American authors, bowdlerizes them and strips off their individuality in the process of mashing them all together to create a strawman that they all are supposed to represent, and then uses the strawman to “demonstrate” that all these great thinkers were really just the intellectual forefathers of today’s “progressive” left. The author, Fred Siegel, represents the rather counter-intuitive point of view that this process of distorting the work and denying the individual relevance of a whole cohort of the greatest writers America has ever produced is to be understood under the rubric of fighting “anti-Americanism.”

Siegel cites a little known American critic, Bernard DeVoto, as the godfather of this notion that most of the great American authors of the early 20th century were really just a bunch of anti-Americans, as similar to each other as so many peas in a pod. As he puts it in the article,

Weaned on the work of H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw and their loathing for conventional mores, Lewis and his confreres became the dominant force in American letters, and their views went largely unchallenged in the literary world. It was left to a critic named Bernard DeVoto to issue the first serious and meaningful challenge to their worldview—the opening salvo in a brave and lonely battle that still resonates, even though DeVoto and the book in which he took up arms for the United States against its own intellectuals are both forgotten.

I won’t take issue with Mr. DeVoto here, because I’ve never read his work, but the sketch of the man presented by Prof. Siegel is unattractive enough.  He condemns the authors in question for, among a host of other sins, claiming that “the prosperity of the 1920s had invalidated capitalism,” for presenting “the Puritan and the Pioneer,” as villains, “whom they believed were the source of America’s dreary commercial culture,” and whose “supposed individualism was one of the coterie’s bêtes noires,” for glorifying Europe as a utopia for writers, artists, and the rest of the gentry of culture, for portraying businessmen as “impotent, barely able to reproduce,” and even “inferior to animals,” and, in a word, being generally “vitriolic in their criticisms of the United States.”

The article concludes with the observation that,

Today that spirit can be found in precincts both high and low—from the hallways of academe to late-night infotainment comics such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who traffic in a knowing snarkiness that confers an unearned sense of superiority on their viewers. Now, as then, angered by the impertinence of the masses in their increasing rejection of the hope and change promised them in 2008, liberals, as in the title of a recent article in the online magazine Slate, raise themselves up by shouting, “Down with the People!”

With that, the process of rendering a whole generation of American authors into a uniform soup and serving them up as the precursors of today’s liberals is complete.  Apparently we are to understand that we can simply dismiss them all without taking the trouble to read them because we already “know” where they stand, none of them had anything worthwhile to say, and, in any case, if you’ve read one, you’ve read them all.  By taking this attitude we demonstrate that we ourselves are just and good, and free of the taints of arrogance, impertinence, and “an unearned sense of superiority.”

Again, DeVoto may be an interesting and worthwhile writer in his own right.  However, the notions Siegel ascribes to him are pure bunk.  To see why, let’s take a closer look at Mencken and Sinclair Lewis, the two authors he singles out for special criticism as archetypes of the evil American authors of yesteryear.  Both of them are well worth reading.  They will certainly rub many modern readers the wrong way, but they were both interesting, entertaining, and thought provoking.  Both of them were harsh in their criticisms of various aspects of American life, but to describe them as “anti-American” is ridiculous.  I say that as one who has devoted considerable attention to the subject over the last decade or so.  The phenomenon is certainly real.  Do a web search and you can turn up some of the related comments I’ve left at Davids Medienkritik, a now inactive website that took issue with the recent remarkable eruption of anti-Americanism in the German media.  The real thing is a blind, mindless hatred, entirely akin to such related phenomena as anti-Semitism and racism.  However, reasoned criticism of America, however harsh, is not anti-Americanism.  For that matter, to the extent that it inspires us to think about and deal with real problems, it’s pro-American.  I hardly agree with everything Mencken and Lewis had to say on the subject, but to claim it was thoughtless or inspired by hate is nonsense. 

As for DeVoto’s specific criticisms, he is supposed to have claimed that the authors on his literary blacklist believed that “the prosperity of the 1920s had invalidated capitalism.”  In response to that claim in the case of Mencken and Lewis, I can only reply, “read their work.”  Mencken was a libertarian to the core.  Nothing could be more absurd than the claim that he somehow resembled the “progressive” liberals of today.  He rejected anything associated with what he called the “Uplift,” and today’s liberals are quintessential representatives of what he meant by the term; those among us who are constantly engaged in striking ostentatious poses as saviors of mankind.  Far from being in any way their intellectual precursor, his response to them would have surely been allergic.  Mencken believed in Liberty, and specifically those liberties set forth in the Bill of Rights.  In keeping with that belief, he opposed suppression of the points of view of Communists, anarchists, or anyone else.  He was one of the greatest editors this country has produced, and the “American Mercury,” which he edited from 1924 to 1933, included essays by capitalists and anti-capitalists as well.  However, Mencken himself finally rejected Communism at a time when many American intellectuals were embracing it, likening it to a form of religious fanaticism, whose leaders were akin to so many popes, bishops and priests.  Coming from a staunch atheist, this hardly seems an “invalidation of capitalism.”  

As for Lewis, I suggest the novel “Dodsworth” to the interested reader.  It’s hero is one of the captains of American industry.  Anyone who thinks that he was portrayed as “impotent and barely able to reproduce” or “inferior to the animals” is in for a big surprise.

Next let’s take up the charge that the two presented “the Puritan and the Pioneer” as villains.  While Mencken may have been an atheist, he is often quoted as having said, “We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.”  He generally took issue, not with religion or “Puritans” per se, but with those who exploited religion to justify the usurpation of the liberties of others, or to attempt to use the power of the state to police their morality, or to suppress freedom of thought.  Therefore, he reserved his special ire for Methodist bishops, who he blamed for foisting Prohibition on the American people, figures like Anthony Comstock, who wanted the state to police morality, and evangelical politicians like William Jennings Bryan, who sought to suppress the teaching of evolution and other scientific theories.  As for the notion that he harbored an animus against the pioneers, nothing could be more absurd.  Just read a few copies of the American Mercury and you’ll generally find fulsome praise of the pioneers’ spirit of liberty, creativity, and resourcefulness.  Mencken may not have written these articles, but he was a very careful editor, choosing, for example, pieces that lauded the founding fathers of old El Paso, the remarkable quality of the writing in some of the earliest periodicals to appear in San Francisco, and the spirit of freedom among the American loggers who worked the forests at the fringe of advancing civilization. 

As for Lewis, the type he pilloried in “Elmer Gantry” might certainly be described as “religious,” but only in the sense that televangelists like Robert Tilton and Jim Bakker are “religious.”  Where, exactly, in his work DeVoto finds any condemnation of pioneers as such I can’t imagine, unless one considers the citizens of Gopher Prairie in his novel Main Street “pioneers.”

Nothing could be more far-fetched than the idea that individualism was a bête noire for either Lewis or Mencken.  The struggle of individuals to assert themselves against the social forces of conformity is a constant theme of Lewis’ novels.  Whether Carroll Kennicott in Main Street asserting her right to organize parties and furnish her house as she pleases, regardless of how “everyone else” does it, Martin Arrowsmith pushing back against the medical and scientific establishment, or Dodsworth promoting automobile designs that stood out from the pack, individualism was always one of his highest virtues.  As for Mencken, ultimate individual that he was, the idea that he rejected individualism doesn’t pass the “ho ho” test.

Prof. Siegel would have us believe that Devoto “issued the first serious and meaningful challenge to their worldview.”  To the extent that he’s referring to Mencken and Lewis, anyone who takes the time to read the contemporary literary criticism will quickly realize this claim is nonsense.  We are told that he fought “a brave and lonely battle” in opposing them, but whether Siegel is referring to the past or the present, that claim doesn’t hold water either.  One of the most important biographies of Lewis, Mark Schorer’s “Sinclair Lewis; An American Life,” which appeared shortly after Devoto’s heyday, damned him with faint praise.  The most significant reference I’ve seen to Mencken in the popular media in the last decade or so referred to the “racism” supposedly exposed in some newly discovered letters.  Given the fact that Mencken was probably the most effective opponent of racism in this country in the first half of the 20th century, hardly ever failed to hammer the Ku Klux Klan and related excrescences in a single issue of the American Mercury, and provided a mainstream forum for W.E.B. Dubois and many other African American intellectuals that put him head and shoulders above the rest of the editors of his day, one can but shake one’s head when reading such stupidities.

There can be nothing more anti-American than gathering a host of America’s best authors, stripping them of their originality, and then accusing them of anti-Americanism, associating them in the process with a modern ideology with which they have nothing in common.  Take a look at the list of best sellers, whether fiction or non-fiction, and it may occur to you, as it does to me, that it’s a wasteland out there.  Do yourself a favor and read some of the authors on DeVoto’s blacklist.  You may not agree with what they have to say, but they’ll make you think.

H. L. Mencken
H. L. Mencken

Volokh Conspiracy: Saturdays with Stendhal

It’s good to see my favorite author is still making the rounds at The Volokh Conspiracy. The incomparable French novelist and psychologist used to dream of his future readers, the Happy Few, writing things like, “I shall only be read in 1880 or 1900” in his letters and journals. If only he’d known! May there always be a Happy Few.